Kosovo voices strong support for Syria opposition

UNITED NATIONS Mon May 14, 2012 7:24pm EDT

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - Kosovo's Foreign Minister Enver Hoxhaj voiced strong support on Monday for Syria's opposition, saying his government had already established diplomatic contacts with Syrians fighting to oust President Bashar al-Assad.

Hoxhaj was responding to comments by Russian U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin, who warned the U.N. Security Council that Kosovo should not be allowed to become a training center for rebels.

Speaking after a regular council meeting on Kosovo, a former province of Serbia, Hoxhaj made clear that Pristina was offering political support to the Syrian opposition, which is locked in a 14-month-old battle with forces loyal to Assad.

"We were among the first governments in Europe who was supporting the opposition in Libya and in other Arab countries last year, because we were fighting for the same aspirations, for the same values," he said.

"We have the same approach to Syria and have some diplomatic contacts between my government and (the) Syrian opposition," Hoxhaj said. "We are supporting very much their cause."

Asked if Kosovo had established training centers for Syrian rebels, Hoxhaj said: "Not at all."

Churkin, whose country is a strong supporter of Assad and has resisted Western calls to impose sanctions on his government, made clear that Moscow was afraid Kosovo was providing more than political advice.

"Turning Kosovo into an international training center for insurgents of various armed units could become a serious destabilizing factor, one going beyond the Balkan region," he said. "We call on international presences operating in (Kosovo) to curb such slippage."

The United Nations has a residual peacekeeping force in Kosovo that operates in the predominantly Serb north. The majority of Kosovars are Albanians, though its sizable Serb minority is concentrated in the north.

The Albanians do not recognize the U.N. peacekeeping mission's authority in Kosovo. The government in Pristina does, however, cooperate with a European Union mission in Kosovo that oversees policing and justice.

Kosovo Serbs, backed by Belgrade, reject Kosovo's 2008 secession and live as if they are still in part of Serbia.

Belgrade lost control of Kosovo in 1999 when NATO bombed Serbia to halt the killing and expulsion of ethnic Albanians by Serb forces fighting a two-year counter-insurgency war.

Kosovo is not a member of the United Nations, because Russia is opposed to its admission. More than 90 countries have recognized Kosovo, but Russia and Serbia are not among them.

Speaking to the Security Council earlier on Monday, Serbian Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic reiterated Belgrade's opposition to Kosovo's February 2008 declaration of independence.

(Editing by Christopher Wilson)

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